A college education in just 10 words

It’s not all Greek: Merriam-Webster’s list of top 10 words on campus includes some Latin, too.

John Lovretta/The Hawk Eye/AP
People head into the Iowa Wesleyan College Chapel as it starts to rain during a ceremony for the unveiling of a statue of former U.S. Sen. James Harlan on the Iowa Wesleyan College campus in Mount Pleasant, Iowa.

You’ve got to hand it to Merriam-Webster. Its website, with its lists and quizzes and videos, makes it so much fun to look things up, one may forget what one was after in the first place.

For instance: the Top 10 “Big Words on Campus,” for which M-W sees a spike in lookups as the academic year begins. Notably, all 10 are from Greek or Latin.

No. 1, culture, is from Latin: “the beliefs, customs, arts, etc., of a particular society, group, place, or time.” The idea is of tending, or even “honoring,” a garden. M-W reminds us that the Roman Cicero spoke of cultura animi, “cultivation of the soul.”

No. 2, irony, from a Greek word meaning “to speak,” is “the use of words to express something other than and especially the opposite of the literal meaning.” It’s often (mis)used to mean something like “too perfect,” or “coincidentally”: “We met the new landlord, Mr. Biggs, and, ironically, he looks as if he weighs 300 pounds.” Hmm, not quite. 

Metaphor, No. 3, is a Greek-derived term widely used for figurative language in general. Its literal sense is “transfer.” Fun fact: I once saw a picture of a Greek moving van advertising (to those who could puzzle out the letters) local or long-distance “metaphors.”

Rhetoric, No. 4, is also from Greek: “the study of writing or speaking as a means of communication or persuasion.”

Allegory, No. 5, is “a story in which the characters and events are symbols that stand for ideas about human life or for a political or historical situation.” It’s from a Greek word for “a speaking about something else.” 

Heuristic, No. 6, from Greek, means “involving or serving as an aid to learning, discovery, or problem-solving by experimental and especially trial-and-error methods.” The Online Etymology Dictionary explains Archimedes’ famous “Eureka!” as related. 

Aesthetic, No. 7, from a Greek word for “perception,” refers, as a noun, to “a particular theory or conception of beauty or art.” M-W quotes a professor describing a particular show as “not just a television program, it’s really an aesthetic.” The show has allegedly led to increased sales of cravats and waistcoats. We’re so grateful to the ancients for giving us the words for the nuances of “Downton Abbey” and “Mad Men.”

No. 8, diversity, from Latin, is widely used to mean “the inclusion of different types of people (such as people of different races or cultures) in a group or organization.” The etymology dictionary observes, “Diversity as a virtue in a nation is an idea from the rise of modern democracies in the 1790s,” but did not then refer to “ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, etc.”

Plagiarize, No. 9, from Latin, means “to commit literary theft.” It’s rooted in the idea of kidnapping, of spreading a net.

Pedagogy, No. 10,  “the art, science, or profession of teaching,” comes from Greek words meaning “leading a child.” 

There you are: an education in 10 words.

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